It’s the stuff of authors’ dreams. A mother turns her sons’ bedtime ritual into a picture-book story and sends the manuscript to a single publishing house, where it’s plucked from the slush pile by an editor who signs up the book, and it becomes a bestseller. This was the serendipitous publishing path of Sherri Duskey Rinker’s Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, released by Chronicle in 2011. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, the book reveals cheerful construction vehicles wrapping up their busy day and settling down to sleep. Now, these big machines rev up again and get some help from a new crew of vehicles in Mighty, Mighty Construction Site, out this month from Chronicle with a 250,000-copy first printing.
The concept for Goodnight, Goodnight, which has sold 1.3 million copies and spawned a handful of novelty spin-offs and a newly published board book edition, was quite literally homegrown. Rinker, who worked as a graphic designer when her sons, now 11 and 16, were younger, recalled that she “was always exhausted” when her kids’ bedtime rolled around, and her second son did not make the nightly routine easy.
“At the age of two, he was obsessed with trucks, and only wanted to read books about them and talk about them, and even mentioned them in his goodnight prayers,” said the author. “By the time we were done, he was wired and not at all sleepy. And one night I got this idea, and I told him that even dump trucks and bulldozers have to sleep at night, and we got into the habit of talking about trucks finishing their last tasks of the day and falling asleep—and that worked!”
One night, after Rinker tucked in her sons and settled into “that place between being awake and asleep,” that bedtime ritual took on a new life for her. “I suddenly shot up in bed, and thought, ‘Oh my gosh—this could be a book!’ and I immediately jotted down the title,” she said. “And images of the construction vehicles popped into my head, and I immediately sketched them.”
After completing the manuscript for Goodnight, Goodnight, Rinker submitted her story to Chronicle, inspired, she said, “by the Chronicle books that were on my kids’ bookshelves, which had a high production quality that I, as a graphic designer, found very appealing. I also made a list of other publishers I’d send the book to when Chronicle said ‘no,’ since I thought there was not a chance I’d get an offer.”
Happily, she was wrong. At an editorial meeting in fall 2009, Mary Colgan, then a Chronicle editor, discovered Rinker’s script in a stack of unagented submissions, and asked her colleague, Melissa Manlove, if she thought the story might “be something.” The answer was “yes,” and Colgan acquired the book. She then approached Tom Lichtenheld (who had illustrated Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s 2009 Duck! Rabbit! for Chronicle) about illustrating Goodnight, Goodnight.
Rolling Out the Big Machines
Lichtenheld, who has never lost his boyhood interest in drawing trucks, signed on without hesitation. “I like drawing vehicles—I’m attracted to anything with wheels,” he explained. “I was grateful to Chronicle for making the leap to ask me, since my work on Duck! Rabbit! was so very different. I hadn’t done a book for a pre-K audience before, and this one sounded like fun, so I jumped right on it.”
In preparation for creating the art, Lichtenheld first photographed various construction sites, a process he found inspiring. “I came to realize there is a certain beauty to construction sites, especially at sunset and at night,” he said. “They have a beautiful lighting to them. And I came across a sketch by a Disney background artist that made me aware that cities glow from beneath in the dark, and appear to float at night. I was really taken with that aesthetic.”
To create the pictures for Goodnight, Goodnight, Lichtenheld drew on dark paper with opaque crayons rather than using the more traditional dark medium on white paper. “That process gave the book its glow,” he explained. “I also decided the art should have a gritty feel, so I played around with textured paper. The style evolved from experimenting, and I realized, looking at lots of pictures, that construction vehicles from the 1940s and ’50s are much more interesting than modern ones, so I gave the vehicles a more classic style.”
Rinker and Lichtenheld, who also collaborated on 2013’s Steam Train, Dream Train for Chronicle, were cautious about doing a Goodnight, Goodnight sequel, and deliberated for quite some time before deciding to create Mighty, Mighty Construction Site. “We did not want to do a sequel for the sake of doing a sequel,” Rinker said. “Tom and I explored some story ideas, and then I thought about having a new crew of construction vehicles join up with the original crew. That premise really came from being a parent, and watching my kids in playgroup or at school, playing with trucks and building things. I realized that is a group activity, and a team effort—and so the idea for the second book developed organically from that.”
The process of creating Mighty, Mighty was far more collaborative than that of its predecessor. Rinker and Lichtenheld, who live close to each other in suburban Chicago, met frequently at a local coffee shop to work on the book. “We’d get together, and I sketched while Sherri wrote,” the illustrator recalled. “We were happy to find a new idea that we were both excited about. I think the most fun part of collaborating on a project is when you’re just starting out, and know that anything is possible. That is such a creative and pure part of the book process.”
Senior editor Manlove, who acquired and edited Steam Train and Mighty, Mighty after Colgan left Chronicle, praised the collaborators for their commitment to their work—and to their audience. “Sherri and Tom care deeply about the quality of their books, and really try to honor the lives of children,” she said. “They envisioned their new book as a kind of parallel to a child’s play date, suggesting kids can build bigger and more imaginative worlds when they put their imaginations together.”
The collaborators and their editor are noncommittal when asked if a third Construction Site book might be in the cards. “There are some ideas floating out there, and I believe in never saying never,” Rinker said. “We are hoping for another book,” Manlove added, “but it matters to all of us that each project have its own self and its own reason for being. So we’re taking it one step at a time.”
Mighty, Mighty Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4521-5216-5